June 5, 2012

A symptom

Deirdre Bailey

A child gets a zero. This is sad statement no matter the story. They're failing. They're fighting the system. They're lazy. They're disengaged. They're "entitled". They "don't care". They're crying for attention.

I have no idea of the specifics surrounding the situation in Edmonton and while I have been reflecting on the possibilities personally, to date I have refrained from participating in the conversation because I have not felt that my evolving opinion is educated enough. But tonight is my tipping point. Not because I now know enough about the specifics, but because I have an overwhelming feeling in my gut that the resulting conversations have been about the wrong things.

CBC talkback has been flooded with callers adamant that children need to be "taught a lesson", to 'fail' (they mean numerically) early in life so they can learn from their mistakes. Facebook has been streaming with everyone's two cents on the "ridiculousness" of a "no-zero" policy and classic political rhetoric advocating that we hold kids 'accountable' by slapping those zeroes on the top of their papers. Family and friends have brought up the "real world" argument. "How will they learn how to keep a job in the real world if they don't learn that you have to do what is expected when you're asked?"

There are a few things that no one has been asking.

What are grades for? What is school for? Why are some of our children 'failing'?

To those arguing that zeroes "teach them a lesson," I would urge you to consider that there is so much more to teaching and learning than quantitative communication. Real learning is intimate personal reflection that comes from lived experience, engagement in practice, and an evolution in thinking. Learning cannot be 'done' to the learner by posting a zero next to their name.

To those arguing that zeroes ensure children 'fail early,' failure is a lack of success. The word implies that something has been attempted. Zeroes are not failed attempts. There was no work here. No effort perhaps, but where then, is the lesson? No work, no pay? No work, no reward? Do we believe that rewards or pay are what should motivate our youth? (see Dan Pink) If so, some of them continue to cry loudly that they do not care for either of these. What's up with those kids? No diploma for them unless they 'play the game?'

On accountability, the definition of which is connected to 'requiring justification, explanation, and responsibility for actions;' is this genuinely possible without conversation? What might that conversation look like? Would a recurring conversation or an impersonal zero be more likely to hold kids accountable for the work they do? And then there is the question again of whether we genuinely believe that our education system should be reduced to indoctrinating the masses into our post-industrial, hierarchical social system.

The real world argument though, is my favourite, because it comes up constantly and often as the trump card. It is the one I have most often struggled with, because everybody's right; our society is rewards based and "jobs won't pay you for work you don't do." But as of recently, I can counter this argument; because I no longer work for the money - I have found my passion and it has changed everything (see Sir Ken Robinson). Often, I work well over 40 hours a week and some days I can't sleep and I am genuinely inspired on a daily basis. You could pay me 10 times as much to work in a different sector, but I wouldn't be nearly as productive because I wouldn't love it. So here's my trump card: if passion is the ultimate motivator, and education could be restructured to better inspire children to find their passion, would zeroes even come into play? I repeat a question asked by Philadelphia school principal Chris Lehmann, "should schools model the world as it is, or as it should be?"

If our goal is to develop creativity, inspire passion, or even raise the standards for rational thought and useful decision making; then our schools fail most of our citizens. At the start of this year, Amy and I had a conversation with our students about what defines 'great work.' These 9 year olds, four year veterans of our present education system, unanimously defined 'great work' as "doing what the teacher asks." At some point in these children's lives, some of them might come to understand that great work is not always necessarily exactly what a teacher asks for. Someone along the way might inspire them to think for themselves and some of them will take a good look at the world and resolve to "do what has to be done" (read: comply) to get through the system, while others will resist. Of those resistors, some might get a zero for work they do not do. If or when they do, the conversation should not be about whether or not they deserve that zero, rather, the conversation should be about whether an education system that dishes these out is one from which we can build the best version of our future.

It is always troublesome to witness how the living, cultivated detail of deepening understandings is inevitably occluded in an overly technical and methodological obsession with quantitative outcomes of the work. Just as children are not flat, anonymous, trainable beings, neither are they measurable entities. While I have no idea of the context for this zero, I fundamentally object to the conversation turning to how grades should serve as anything more than some antiquated form of incentive for better decision-making in future learning endeavours. Real learning needs no compensation, real learning sells itself.


  1. I agree that most of us are observers in this situation who don’t know the specific context. I also agree that inspiration and passion are critical learning outcomes. I too have found my passion and I do the ‘work’ that I do because I find that I just must. I consider myself very lucky and I desperately want my students (and colleagues, and friends, and kids) to find that too. And I thoroughly agree that learning should sell itself and need no compensation.

    However, when I read what you wrote here, I hesitate somewhat in accepting what I interpret to be a suggestion about how to re-frame the conversation. If the desired learning outcomes require a teacher to structure the learning environment so that not submitting something earns a zero grade then I don’t see how this precludes also designing for learning outcomes aimed at developing creativity or inspiring passion. In my experience these are two different and often independent outcomes. I’d suggest that the need for the latter does not necessarily imply a certain position on the former - that those whose situation requires giving a zero are not necessarily less sympathetic to the role of creativity and passion. Put another way: I don’t see how receiving a zero when not submitting something would necessarily deny a learner opportunities for lived experiences, intimate personal reflection, engagement in practice, or an evolution in thinking. I think I’m suggesting that it comes down to how the learning environment is designed and we need to be careful not to conflate these two important issues.

    You ask whether zeroes would come into play if passion was the ultimate motivator and education was able to inspire learners to find their passion. My answer is: yes, sometimes.

    I help people learn to innovate and an often discussed context in my field is that of business planning. For example, it would probably be wrong for me to reward only the students who submit rock solid plans describing ‘great’ business ideas. It’s often argued that we should make room – through the learning activities and assessment approach – for students to develop only a moderately good idea but to learn (and receive a good grade) from the experience of having done so and from reflecting on how to make the idea and the plan better; the better ideas and plans most often come from the students who tap into their passions. If done properly this can give them tools to help get and stay inspired, and can provide learning that they’ll find very useful in ‘the real world’. But even in this case if the student doesn’t engage in the learning process and therefore doesn’t submit any evidence of having done so then I think they might well deserve a zero.

    I imagine similar situations exist in environments designed to help students learn in math, science, engineering, arts and in other disciplines.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Hope I’ve interpreted them as you intended and I hope my thoughts contribute to the conversation.

  2. Thanks for giving me another side of though on this argument. I am not a teacher, though want to inspire my kids to live passionately, find themselves and their own creativity (which i why we sometimes skip school and do other things), but also to work hard even when they don't feel like it.

  3. This Brings to my mind this whole business of assigning a mark. I see a 0 as indicating 0 engagement, 0 effort, 0 production, 0 learning and probably a whole bunch of other 0's too. I am still sorting out if there wern't another way of indicating the total disengagement rather than just giving a 0.
    This year I have experimented with giving comments rather than marks on students work (I kept marks for reporting purposes, now don't get me started on that process). The main point I learned is that the students are just like me, motivate them,guide them and their own interest and curiosity will carry them forward. I think we have this innate desire to learn and progress and marks do nothing but say you are not good enough even if you were to get 80%.

    Thanks for stimulating this "conversation". Twitter Teckteach